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Donnelly's Long and Winding Road to the Senate

Michael Conroy/Associated Press
Donnelly began the cycle as an underdog, with lackluster fundraising numbers in a solidly red state. But a misstep from his Republican opponent at the end of the campaign boosted the lawmaker and may have made the difference in the tight race. In the end, Donnelly beat Mourdock by about 6 points.

Rep. Joe Donnelly soared down U.S. Route 41 in Indiana in his navy Jeep on the two-hour drive from Terre Haute to Evansville. It was the evening of Oct. 3, and after 18 grueling months of campaigning, Donnelly had received his best poll numbers yet that morning. Flanked by cornfields and Cracker Barrels, he believed he had finally put away his opponent, state Treasurer Richard Mourdock.

An hour later, Donnelly felt sick to his stomach. On the car radio, he heard the president blow his first debate and, by proxy, Donnellys unprecedented lead. He knew the math: Its nearly impossible for a Democratic candidate to win statewide if the president loses Indiana by more than a dozen points.

But Donnellys circuitous road to the Senate was far from over. He started the cycle as an afterthought on Democrats difficult Senate map, spending miserable hours fundraising in the windowless basement of his partys headquarters. He ended the cycle as one of the Democrats all-stars, picking up a Senate seat in a state as red as Hoosier crimson.

Maybe Donnelly got lucky. His detractors and even some supporters argue the congressman would not have won if not for Mourdocks inarticulateness. Undoubtedly, the Republican nominees tearful proclamation that pregnancy from rape is something God intended changed the race.

But Mourdocks comments reverberated, in part, because Donnellys team was in a position to take advantage of his opponents rhetorical misstep. Mourdocks team never stopped running a Republican primary campaign and that, exacerbated by the candidates infamous comment, cost him the race.

Basement Bottom

December 2010 marked a low point for Hoosier Democrats. They had just about wiped out in the midterm elections. Donnellys friend, Rep. Brad Ellsworth, D-Ind., lost his Senate bid by a whopping 15 points. Democratic Rep. Baron Hill lost by double digits, and Donnelly survived re-election by less than a point.

In the wake of those losses, longtime state Democratic Party Chairman Dan Parker summoned more than a dozen Democratic candidates, including Donnelly, Ellsworth and Hill, to lunch at a seafood house on Indianapolis west reservoir that month. Parker wanted an open discussion about upcoming statewide races and, above all, to avoid the kind of primary that plagued his partys aspirations before.

I dont know who you are, but one of you is running for Senate and one of you is running for governor, Parker told the group gathered out of eyesight in the basements private dining room at Ricks Boat Yard.

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